Long before Aishwarya Rai globalized our idea of the perfect feminine form (translucent skin tone, hazel eyes, leggy and lissome), Sridevi was the standard definition of beauty for a full generation of South Indians. Proud mothers upon seeing their daughters in a pattu pavadai or a Kanjeevaram saree would always detect some Sridevi in them. “Yen ponnu asapula paarthaa Sridevi madiriye iruppa…” (If you happen to catch a sudden glimpse of my daughter, she’ll look ditto like Sridevi.)
In the early 1980s, mini Ferris Wheels at Chennai’s Marina beach were popular among young lovers and newly weds. Their coupes, with seating for two, bore names much like how the meeting rooms now at IT firms are named after scientists and mathematicians (‘Let’s huddle in the Fermat for a brainstorm…’ On that, some other time). Here, the pods carried names of various on-screen romantic pairings. ‘Rajini-Sridevi’ and ‘Kamal-Sridevi’ were the most sought after. While the man could choose to feel like Rajini or Kamal on a whim, his woman had to be Sridevi.
There’s a very regressive yet extremely popular Goundamani-Senthil Tamil comedy sketch from the film Magudam. In it, Senthil tricks Goundamani – who has never seen a film – into marrying his “ugly” sister by passing off Sridevi on a photograph as the sister.
That was the thing with Sridevi. Her beauty didn’t seem unaspirable or otherworldly. There was something eminently ‘locally-made’ about her. In that, Sridevi was very much a part of the continuum of great South Indian female lead actors such as Bhanumathy, Padmini, Saroja Devi, Savithri, Lakshmi and Jayalalithaa. Only, she was a more consummate actor than all of them, barring Lakshmi perhaps. And it showed in the kind of films she did, especially in Tamil, beginning the mid-1970s. Sridevi’s star role, as a phenomenally talented actor, is often overlooked in the story of New Wave Tamil cinema between the mid-1970s to late-1980s.
Sridevi was at once a drop dead gorgeous heroine, a powerful actor and a thinking man’s crumpet, much before that category existed Tamil cinema
But for Sridevi, K Balachander’s social realism series of that period may have stuttered. Without Sridevi as Mayil in 16 Vayathinile, Bharatiraja’s may have had to wait longer for his breakout moment. No Sridevi, no Moondram Pirai, perhaps no Balu Mahendra of the pan-India acclaim; no Sridevi, no Johnny, no Mahendran as a Tamil cinema great.
There are very few actors, especially women, who while sharing screen space with Kamal Haasan were allowed to, or could by the sheer force of their talent, overshadow him. Sridevi managed to do it as a matter of routine. She could act. Without a fuss. Without making acting seem like some esoteric endeavour.
She didn’t need a dubbing artiste for her Tamil, Telugu or Hindi films. That essential skill going out of fashion pretty much coincided with Sridevi exiting Southern cinema.
Suhasini Maniratnam, an acclaimed actor herself, who witnessed Sridevi and her uncle Kamal at close quarters at film shoots, described Sridevi as a complete natural who could enact scenes with high degree of difficulty like eating a piece of halwa, after a very short on-the-sets rehearsal routine that included memorizing the dialogues accompanied by unconsciously frantic twirling of hair.
Her career as mainstream heroine began in 1976 with the K Balachander-directed Tamil film Moondru Mudichu. The film had such a sexually charged subtext that you wouldn’t want your 13-year old to see it (at least I wouldn’t), not least play the central role. But a 13-year-old Sridevi did. She was cast as a college girl coveted by multiple men. In it, she ended up marrying a 50-year old man, Rajini’s father, as an act of revenge on a scheming Rajini who had willfully caused the death of her lover, Kamal. How could Balachander, a great ‘progressive’ filmmaker famous for making ‘women-oriented’ films employ a 13-year old child for this role? Surely, it’s not a case of imposing present-day morality on actions medieval. But Balachander wasn’t alone. Bharatiraja’s 16 Vayathinile had somewhat similar shades but set in a rural landscape. Sridevi excelled as the child-woman in Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai because she was one.
Even accounting for the general bleakness of life in the mid1970s and the early-1980S, Tamil cinema of that period seemed excessively attracted to tragedy. While leading men had the luxury of relative variety in terms of the roles they could find, the acting prowess of women counterparts was measured by how well they could portray pathos. Besides being able to dance and look pretty, handling grief on-screen was where you displayed your acting chops. The operative adverb was azhuthham (depth and intensity) of acting. As a result, Sridevi, an above par actor, frequently had to play the victim of unrequited love, generic adversity, mental disorientation and male perversion. By her own admission, Bollywood demanded less of her skills as an actor. Undoubtedly true, but in the South too, her roles were becoming stereotypical, albeit in a slightly different way.
How could Balachander, a great ‘progressive’ filmmaker famous for making ‘women-oriented’ films employ a 13-year old child in Moondru Mudichu? Surely, it’s not a case of imposing present-day morality on actions medieval. But Balachander wasn’t alone. Bharatiraja’s 16 Vayathinile had somewhat similar shades but set in a rural landscape. Sridevi excelled as the child-woman in Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai because she was one
Sridevi and Ilayaraja’s music (not to forget a few notable MS Viswanathan contributions) have often rescued films with stilted scripts, directorial delusions and male lead overacting (mostly Kamal). Two Sridevi Tamil films hold a special place in my heart. Varumayin Niram Sivappu and Meendum Kokila. In Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Kamal Haasan plays an idealist, rebellious angry young man rejected in the job market despite being armed with a master’s degree in philosophy (no wonder!). His was a rather odd combination of a Marxian revolutionary and an Ayn Randian objectivist. Sridevi, a struggling stage actor with a father who is a wastrel is attracted to the always boiling-in-moral-anger Kamal. Sridevi’s calm presence redeemed an ideological hodgepodge. I loved the retro-themed Hindi song Tu hai raja, main hoon rani.. in Varumayin Niram Sivappu so much that I’ve often dragged my wife in our courtship days to some of the Delhi parks where the song was shot to hum a few lines from it, atonally.
In Meedum Kokila, Kamal Haasan gets more screen time, but it’s a Sridevi film through and through. In it, she rescues her young lascivious husband, Kannagi-like from the attractions of a curvy film star who he happens to befriend. I can’t remember seeing anyone more beautiful on a film screen than Sridevi in the song ‘Chinnanchiru vayadhil…’ (go on, judge me!) in that film. Sridevi was at once a drop dead gorgeous heroine, a powerful actor and a thinking man’s crumpet, much before that category got created in Tamil cinema.
But no matter how skilled she was, Sridevi had to pay her dues to the system. She paired up with hamming and hawing South Indian heroes three times her age. But she came across as having fun at the expense of the NTRs and the Mohan Babus. She seemed the ultimate professional at a time when male colleagues wanted to paw at her.
Having begun acting at the age of four, the camera possibly held no fears for her. Before she became an adult, Sridevi had attained superstardom. Between 1976 and 1983 she had acted in 45 Tamil films alone. She was almost as prolific in Telugu. At 21, her home base – the Southern film industry – was no more an adequate receptacle for her talents.
While she had acted in a few failed Bollywood ventures, the preparation to storm Bombay with serious intent began with the nose-job around 1983. The physical attributes that made her desirable in the South – the natural skin-tone, longish nose, thick, long black hair with a slight suggestion of a wiry coil – seemed a liability up North.
She bought herself a new Bollywood-ready body. Even that didn’t seem enough. Extirpation was warranted.
It wasn’t uncommon for South Indian women actors to find incredible Bollywood success. Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini had done that in the past. Pan-India professional success and marriage to North Indian men did not subsume their South Indian cultural identity or individual enterprise. Even in the pomp of their Bollywood careers, both Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini socially and culturally remained a part of South Madras. When their acting careers ended both slotted back seamlessly, pursuing their passion for classical music and dance. Vyjayanthimala in fact was elected twice to the Lok Sabha from South Madras. Sridevi, on the other hand, seemed to drift apart with a vengeance. In her rare Tamil interviews, she spoke in the manner of Tamil heroines imported from the North. She made an appearance on Kaun Banega Crorepati some years ago as a celebrity contestant. There was a question about what the name of the Kerala hill station Munnar meant. The clues and “lifelines” notwithstanding, Sridevi who had once spoken wonderfully complex dialogues in her mother tongue Tamil could not deduce it meant ‘three rivers’. Even Amitabh Bachchan seemed shocked and exasperated.
Her life, and death, evoke in me a similar feeling.
(Photo credit: www.filmfare.com)
(TR Vivek is director editorial, Hill+Knowlton India. Opinions expressed are personal)